The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one.
He is the human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game.
Henry Ward Beecher
By DEBBY APPLEGATE
The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was the most popular and controversial Christian minister in the United States for more than three decades, from the 1850s through the 1880s. A notoriously paradoxical figure, Beecher was famous both for both his warmhearted liberal theology, which he dubbed “The Doctrine of Love,” and his fiery public crusades. As he liked to joke, “I am a peace-man, except when I wish to fight.”
Beecher earned international notoriety as a “political preacher” in the tempestuous decade prior to the American Civil War. He was a flamboyant antislavery activist, an early champion of the fledgling Republican Party, and an outspoken supporter of the war against the Confederacy, at a time when all of these stands were extremely contentious. In an era when many Christians believed the Old Testament sanctioned race-based slavery, he showed how the New Testament could be interpreted as repudiating human bondage. Along with his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Beecher convinced thousands of Americans that the antislavery movement was both godly and socially respectable.
Beecher’s influence extended far beyond religious and political matters. His irreverent and often iconoclastic opinions on science, psychology, art, entertainment, and popular culture helped liberate Americans from stifling prejudices and outworn conventions, and usher in modern patterns of thought. As one admirer wrote after his death in 1887, "Abraham Lincoln emancipated men's bodies; Henry Ward Beecher emancipated their minds.
The one delivered them from injustice; the other, from superstition.”
But Beecher’s reputation as both a preacher and a pundit was nearly eclipsed in 1872 when he was accused of seducing one of his church parishioners. For two years, the scandal dominated the press and public conversation. For both his fans and foes, the question of his guilt became a national referendum on all that Beecher had ever said or symbolized. “We can recall no one event since the murder of Lincoln that has so moved the people as this question whether Henry Ward Beecher is the basest of men," declared the New York Herald in summer of 1874.
Henry Ward Beecher was born June 24, 1813, in Litchfield, Connecticut. His father Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) was Connecticut's most prominent Congregational preacher, at a time when the Nutmeg State was one of the country’s last remaining theocracies, in which every household was taxed to support of the state-sanctioned Congregationalist Church. Nationally, Lyman was famous as the last of the great Puritan preachers, a fierce promoter of religious revivals, a staunch defender of Calvinist theology, and a pioneering moral reformer and activist. But Lyman Beecher’s greatest claim to notoriety was as “the father of more brains than anyone in America.”
Lyman instilled all eleven of his children with his sense of divine mission. All seven of Lyman’s sons became ministers and three of his daughters became renowned public reformers. As the eighth born child, Henry was often intimidated by his brilliant, ambitious siblings and his demanding father. Although Henry adored Lyman, he felt deeply scarred by what he saw as his father’s harsh theology and his high expectations. As Henry later lamented, “I supposed myself to be a sinner in the very fact that I did not feel sinful.”
In 1826, Lyman moved the family to Boston, Massachusetts to fight the rise of religious liberalism in the City of Pilgrims. After a rebellious year attending the Boston Latin School, Henry was sent to finish high school at the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in rural Amherst, Massachusetts.
Henry entered nearby Amherst College in 1830. It was the peak of the Christian revival movement later known as the Second Great Awakening, as well as a time of tremendous intellectual ferment on college campuses. Although a careless student in the classroom, Henry was captivated by the Romantic literature flooding in from Europe and the new popular craze for science. He learned from both the unorthodox principle that no idea is too sacred to test against practical experience. Like most of the Beechers, he was also a passionate supporter of the many idealistic reform movements that promised to bring a new moral order to America.
After graduating in 1834, Henry followed his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, the booming capital of the West, where Lyman was appointed president of the newly established Lane Theological Seminary. (Following ecclesiastical tradition, the Beechers preached in Presbyterian rather than Congregational churches when they lived in the West.)
While studying for the ministry, Henry became embroiled in the increasingly contentious battles over slavery. In 1834, Lane Seminary split bitterly over the question of whether slavery should be immediately abolished. Then in the summer of 1836, anti-abolitionist rioters swept through Cincinnati attacking blacks and white abolitionists. Despite – or perhaps because of -- these traumatic events, in these early years Henry, like the rest of his family, took a cautious stance on the slavery question. He condemned human bondage as a sin but was reluctant to embrace the radical social and political changes – and the violence -- that abolition would bring.
Henry’s first pastorate was in the rough river town of Lawrenceburgh, Indiana, where he married Eunice Bullard, his college sweetheart from Sutton, Massachusetts. Eunice went on to give birth to ten children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. In 1839 he moved to a new church in the fledgling state capital of Indianapolis.
Henry thrived on the western frontier, with its easy manners, wide-open opportunities and unashamed pursuit of happiness. Preaching constantly in log-cabins and raucous open-air camp revival meetings, he shook off his stiff Yankee training, developing an emotional, melodramatic style all his own. Soon, he found that the less he preached of his father’s fire-and-brimstone theology and the more he spoke of Christ’s unconditional love and forgiveness, the more people flocked to him. As his popularity grew and his religion beliefs grew less orthodox, his antislavery views gradually became bolder.
As his reputation rose in the west, Beecher began to attract attention back east. In 1847, when Beecher was 34, several wealthy New York businessmen recruited the promising young preacher to head a new Congregational church in the up-and-coming suburb of Brooklyn Heights, New York. Brooklyn was then known as “The City of Churches,” but no one had ever seen a minister like Henry Ward Beecher, with his odd combination of western informality, eastern education and unabashed showmanship.
Beecher behaved more like a jovial farmer than a somber clergymen, without a trace of holier-than-thou. He shocked the city’s Christians by making jokes from the pulpit, bringing flowers into the church, and inviting his congregation sing the hymns rather than hiring a profession choir, all common practices today. He blasted pretension and hypocrisy of all kinds, especially religious bigotry. “What is Orthodoxy?” thundered Beecher. “I will tell you. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and Heterodoxy is your doxy, that is if your doxy is not like my doxy.”
Even more shocking to many Americans was what he called his all-forgiving “Doctrine of Love,” which upended the dogmas of his childhood. (Opponents gleefully renamed it the “Gospel of Gush.”) God, he insisted, was not an exacting judge, but a loving parent who wants his children to be happy here on earth as well as after death. “It is Love the world wants," Beecher proclaimed to startled audiences in the 1850s. "Higher than morality, higher than philanthropy, higher than worship, comes the love of God. That is the chiefest thing.”
While carefully maintaining the mantle of the Protestant establishment, Beecher’s thinking was increasingly influenced by the iconoclastic ideas of the Transcendentalists, with their emphasis on imagination over reason, spontaneity over formality, self-expression over social convention, and individual conscience over the rule of law.